The struggles of kids with mental illness in a sexualized culture

I just had another teen patient hauled off to the hospital following the end of a sexual relationship.

When teens who struggle with mental illness find themselves engaged in sexual relationships, there’s lots of danger involved. As a physician specializing in child and adolescent psychiatry, I should know. Their parents frequently bring them to our practice with the hope that we can help to keep them alive. Some of them experience same-sex attraction and face unique challenges, especially when they struggle to reconcile their biological drives and the messages of the culture with (in many instances) the teaching they’ve been exposed to from their parents and from the church.

There are reasons why we have laws against 14 year olds driving cars, or 17 year olds buying alcohol. We don’t permit this behavior because we question whether kids at that age have the necessary judgment and emotional maturity to exercise such privileges responsibly.

From a developmental standpoint, there are lots of teenagers who aren’t remotely equipped to manage the intensity of emotions that accompany a sexual relationship. Kids who are prone to obsessive thinking may experience great emotional distress from the normal types of ups and downs that occur in any close relationship. Kids with ADHD or other conditions that impact executive functioning (especially self control and emotional self-regulation)…trauma, mood disorders, substance use disorders-are more prone to act impulsively when processing intense emotions. We think the most plausible explanation for the increased risk of suicide among kids treated with antidepressants involves the disinhibition some kids experience while taking these medications.

A couple of years ago, I said the following in a magazine interview on the topic of the advisability of parent-sanctioned “sleepovers” when teens have boyfriends or girlfriends…

“As a society, we don’t ‘accept’ a person’s choice to drink significant amounts of alcohol and get behind the wheel of a car, even though there are presumably times when people have driven while under the influence without doing harm to themselves or others. Given what we know about the potential consequences of sexual behaviour for teenagers, why would we have an ‘accepting attitude’ about that behaviour?”

One of the reasons I feel so strongly that churches need to welcome kids who struggle with mental illness is that Christianity as described in the Bible offers the prospect of a much healthier identity than that put forth by the hopelessly broken culture that Christ came to redeem. As Christians, we’re defined by who we are in Christ…not by the color of our skin, our place of origin, or who we’re sexually attracted to. After all, in 2 Corinthians 5:17, Paul states clearly that if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation, and in Ephesians 4:24 we’re encouraged to “put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.”

So…what’s the morally responsible thing to do? I think each and every one of us is called to reflect the love of Christ to everyone we encounter, which in my case includes a lot of kids with mental illness who are at much greater risk for serious complications when they experience the intense emotions that result from acting upon their sexual desires. The research suggests that teen sex (both opposite sex or same-sex relationships) leads to a greater risk of suicide. Is it our unwillingness to affirm the risky behaviors that all too often lead to tragic consequences or a hopelessly broken, messed up culture that tells emotionally vulnerable teens that they’re defined by who they’re attracted to and their desirability to potential sexual partners? The same hopelessly broken culture that Jesus came down to Earth to redeem?